When the fireboat Massey Shaw set out on the afternoon of May 30 1940, it was for a different kind of life-saving mission. Rather than its usual job of fighting fires along London’s river Thames, the non-seagoing vessel made a special voyage across the English Channel to Dunkirk.

The 13-man crew, who had to buy a compass specially for the journey, had expected to be fighting fires in the northern French port. However, this proved impractical amid the chaos of bombing and machine gun fire, so instead they aided the evacuation of allied troops from the beach at Bray-Dunes.

The fireboat rescued 60 men and returned to Ramsgate, on England’s south coast, on June 1 — the first of three life-saving voyages made for the Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, during the second world war. Now, the Massey Shaw Education Trust, which looks after the historic vessel, is collaborating with British watchmaker William Wood Watches on a limited-edition timepiece it hopes will boost awareness ahead of the 85th anniversary of Operation Dynamo next year. The charity is seeking to raise the last £10,000 of the £25,000 it needs to restore one of the boat’s twin diesel engines, to enable it to join a commemorative flotilla of Dunkirk “little ships” that rescued allied troops.

Launched in 1935, the fireboat is named after Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the first chief officer of what became the London Fire Brigade.

Originally crewed by eight men, it is equipped with twin pumps that draw water from the river to feed a fixed monitor (water jet) and eight outlets that connect to hoses.

On its second voyage to Dunkirk, Massey Shaw ferried 500 soldiers to larger ships lying offshore and brought another 46 back to the UK. It was unable to evacuate troops on its final trip but, on the return journey, rescued 40 sailors from a French ship that had hit a mine.

A printed black and white image of a historical naval ship in motion, showing detail of the ship’s structure and the ocean spray at its side
The boat returning from Dunkirk in 1940 © Massey Shaw Education Trust

Back in London, the boat “saved the day” by helping protect St Paul’s Cathedral from the German air raid of December 29-30 1940, says retired firefighter Bill Hickin, a Massey Shaw Education Trust volunteer. Water mains were damaged by enemy bombing during the Blitz, so the crew, as they did for many other riverside incidents, moored the boat and rowed a hose ashore in a skiff. “The fireboats had to supply water to the land crews who were short of water or short of pressure,” says Hickin.

In 1948, the then health minister Aneurin Bevan and Herbert Morrison, leader of the House of Commons, are believed to have had a “secret meeting” on board the boat ahead of the formation of the NHS that year, according to Hickin.

The fireboat came out of service in 1970, with the organisation now known as the Massey Shaw Education Trust formed in 1982. The volunteer-run charity offers public tours of the vessel, which is moored near Canary Wharf, as well as school visits.

Bill Hickin inside the fireboat moored near Canary Wharf © Charlie Bibby/FT

A restoration of the boat was completed in 2013 thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund grants totalling £1.2mn. However, one of the vessel’s engines failed in 2018, so the charity is fundraising to restore this. The boat will require checks to ensure it is seaworthy to travel to Dunkirk and a crew will have to be trained.

William Wood Watches, which has donated £10,000 to the trust and hopes to make further contributions, is producing 600 pieces inspired by the boat that will be available to order from May 26 (the anniversary of the start of Operation Dynamo).

Founder Jonny Garrett says he wanted to play a role in trying to “keep this incredible boat alive”. Anyone who buys the watch will have their name engraved on a plaque in the vessel’s crew room.

The brand, which makes timepieces that incorporate upcycled firefighting equipment, showed a sample piece at Windup Watch Fair in San Francisco last weekend. Delivery of the £3,995 watch is planned to be in time for Remembrance Sunday this year, on November 10.

The design of the dial reflects an engine telegraph in the wheelhouse through which the helmsman communicates with the crew in the engine room. Red-painted stainless steel around the edge is a nod to engine-room pipes.

A commemorative watch styled with vintage maritime control labels, a black and gold face, inscribed with “William Wood” and “Dunkirk 1940,” set against a distinctive red and gold casing and a textured beige wristband
William Wood is producing 600 pieces inspired by the boat . . .
A designer watch by William Wood with a dramatic wartime scene on the dial, encased in a red and black frame and attached to a tan strap, designed to honor historical events with the phrase “We Will Remember Them” inscribed
. . . . to be delivered by Remembrance Sunday in November

The back of the aged bronze case depicts a Dunkirk evacuation scene featuring little ships, with the silhouette of Massey Shaw made from melted-down brass coil from the vessel’s engines. “We’re engraving poppies on to the glass so it looks like you’re stood on the sandbanks of Dunkirk looking down into the picture,” says Garrett. The edition number is engraved on the case back and hand-painted on the canvas strap, made from upcycled firefighting kit.

Garrett says the US recently overtook the UK as William Wood’s biggest market, with sales also coming from countries including Canada, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. Retired firefighter David Rogers, chief executive of the Massey Shaw Education Trust, hopes the watch will attract new and global interest in the boat and will set “a new bar” for its future.

He says the vessel is both “part of the fabric” of the Thames and a national event. “Other little ships were involved [at Dunkirk], but this went back to its day job,” he says. “Imagine coming out from one serious event into another with the Blitz. Its whole story was about saving lives.”

Other watches featuring WW2 hardware

The X4009 Collection
REC Watches specialises in timepieces featuring materials from historic vehicles, such as motorcycles and aircraft. Now, the Danish brand is taking pre-orders for the second batch of its X4009 collection, a series of three models featuring aluminium from the fuselage of the Spitfire Mk1a X4009 flown by Australian fighter pilot Paterson “Pat” Hughes during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The brand donates a proportion of each sale to the Australian non-profit organisation Hunter Fighter Collection, which is restoring the aircraft. Metal considered unfit for the ongoing restoration is integrated into the watches’ sub-dial at 6 o’clock. The new pieces are expected to be delivered from October. The first batch of 600 watches, launched last May, sold out.

DB-1 Blackout Lancaster
Zero West’s DB-1 Blackout watch recognises Operation Chastise, the Dambusters raid on German dams by RAF bombers in May 1943. The UK brand’s model features a machined disc of metal salvaged from ED825, one of the 19 Lancaster bombers from 617 Squadron that took part in the action.

This aluminium alloy from the aircraft’s body work is set into the case back of the watch, the design for which draws inspiration from the plane’s altimeter. ED825 crashed in France in December 1943 with no survivors. Zero West worked with aviation archaeologists to source the metal for its watches. Launched last year, the model is a limited edition of 100 pieces.

Twilight Tear
AVI-8 — whose watches pay homage to military aviation history — has incorporated part of the fuselage from the North American P-51 Mustang 44-63864, nicknamed Twilight Tear, into a case back of a piece it launched in February.

The limited edition collection featured 200 watches in each of three colour ways but only the blue version is still available. The aircraft was flown by American fighter pilot Hubert “Bill” Davis from Duxford aerodrome in south-east England during the second world war. It is on display at the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Minnesota, which supplied aluminium that it had retained following the aircraft’s restoration. Five per cent of net sales from the collection are going to the museum.

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